50 Years Later, Looking Back At Apollo 10, Precursor To The Moon Landing

May 18, 2019
Originally published on May 18, 2019 2:12 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's been nearly half a century since Neil Armstrong took that giant leap for mankind and walked on the moon. That was July, 1969. And as with every major production, there was a dress rehearsal. Fifty years ago today, Apollo 10 set forth toward the moon with a directive from NASA - don't land. To tell us more about that mission, we called Lieutenant General Thomas P. Stafford, the commander of Apollo 10's three-man crew. General Stafford, welcome. It is indeed an honor to speak with you.

THOMAS P STAFFORD: Oh, thank you. It's great to talk to you. I also look back on the time again. People often ask, were you tempted to land? The answer is no. See, I had a heavyweight lunar module. But Neil had - but when he landed, he only had 17 seconds of fuel left. I would have had zero fuel.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that. So you went right to the point, as I would expect you to do. You weren't tempted to land.

STAFFORD: No.

MARTIN: No.

STAFFORD: No. No.

MARTIN: When you joined the Apollo 10 mission, you'd already been to space twice before - 1965 and 1966. How was this mission described to you? Did they tell you that this is - it's going to be the rehearsal for the landing?

STAFFORD: No. It - well, as we got into it, we didn't know who would land the lunar modules. We're running late, and the Soviets were pushing to do a free-return trajectory - just loop around the moon and come back. Then they could say, the Soviets have been to the moon. All our trajectory from 8, 10, 11, 12 were free return. The only we went off of free return to start with was 13.

MARTIN: So I think you've raised something I was going to ask you about, is these missions are happening at a time when there was the space race going on with the Soviet Union. So I guess a lot of people wanted to know, well, it's like, were you jealous, or were you mad that you weren't going to land? What I think I hear you saying is no, everybody was kind of doing their part. Everybody just wanted to do their part. Would that be fair to say?

STAFFORD: Well, you're absolutely right. We're doing our part. And Deke Slayton called me, and he said, Tom, he said, you're going to be the backup for 7. You're going to turn around and fly 10. He called Neil in, he says, Neil, you're backing up 8. You'll fly 11. Called in Pete Conrad, said you're backing up 9. You will fly twelve. And between the three of you, if the systems go right, somebody should have a chance to land.

MARTIN: When you got that close, though, can you describe what that feeling was like?

STAFFORD: Well, I was amazed at the moonscape. The craters were awesome. But also, you know, what really surprised me were the size of the boulders. You just look at them - I said, they're bigger than a three or four-story building. Heck, they were bigger than the Georgia Dome.

MARTIN: We actually found a clip of you during the mission. You're broadcasting the song "Fly Me To The Moon" back to NASA during the mission. Let's play it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STAFFORD: This is just so that you guys don't get too excited about the TV and forget what your job is down there.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We're ready for what we're about to receive.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FLY ME TO THE MOON")

FRANK SINATRA: (Singing) Fly me to the moon, and let me play among the stars. Let me see what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We don't need it all.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

STAFFORD: Yeah.

MARTIN: What was going on there?

STAFFORD: OK. Well, you've got to remember - I mentioned TV. You know, space was so beautiful. I'd been up twice before. But all we had was still pictures. And we had 16-millimeter strips of movie film we'd take, but there was nothing like real-time TV to watch the whole thing. They did have black-and-white TV they started on Apollo 7 and 8 and 9. It wasn't good at all. I knew General Sam Phillips, the Apollo program director, real well. So I told him and said, look - our country can do better than this. So we put together a small group. We put it onboard just before we launched. It worked great. And so the first color TV ever from space was Apollo 10. After we got back, about two weeks later, I got a call and said I'd been awarded an Emmy.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

STAFFORD: So, in fact, we had more prime-time color TV than even 11 because nobody had ever seen color TV from space.

MARTIN: Wow. That's wild.

STAFFORD: And it was all my idea.

MARTIN: So I have to add Emmy Award-winning lieutenant general. I want to go back to something you said earlier when you talked about pushing to get the color television for space. You said that, look, our country can do better. Is there something that you would like to see our country pushing toward now? What do you hope or what would you wish our next quest would be?

STAFFORD: Well, that's very simple for me to answer. The next quest is what President Trump has said. We should go back to the moon.

MARTIN: Why do you think it's important to go back to the moon?

STAFFORD: Well, it - there's so many things to do scientifically that you can do from the moon because we just barely scratched the surface in those six missions we had.

MARTIN: That's Lieutenant General Thomas P. Stafford. He is the commander and the only surviving member of the Apollo 10 crew. And we reached him in Weatherford, Okla., where he is celebrating this important milestone. General Stafford, thank you so much for talking to us. Thank you so much for your service.

STAFFORD: Oh, well, thank you. It's been a real honor. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.